LA BAMBA - Golden Oldies On the Big Screen
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, April 2, 2021
EDITOR’S NOTE: This fine rockin’ 1950s-era biography is (gulp!) 35 years old now and Fathom Events has decided to give it a big-screen revival. Not a bad idea. You can catch it at some local theaters on Sunday, April 18; Wednesday, April 21; and Thursday, April 22. My review was published in the Deseret News on June 24, 1987.
According to “La Bamba,” 1950s rock ’n’ roller Ritchie Valens was a virtual saint, managing somehow to keep himself outside the influence of his evil brother Bob.
And when he began to rise as a singing sensation, Ritchie also kept his perspective, remaining loyal to his family and friends. Bob just got jealous.
On the surface that might seem to be fairly tame stuff for an ’80s biographical movie on the brief life of a ’50s rock star (Ritchie Valens died in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holley). But in the hands of writer-director Luis Valdez and his excellent cast, “La Bamba” is a well thought-out serious drama with a strong message for youth — one that is played out, not preached.
As the film tells it, Ritchie was a sweet-natured, gentle teenager from a poverty-ridden but close-knit family of migrant workers. Though his father is dead when the film opens, Ritchie’s mother holds the family together.
Esai Morales, Lou Diamond Phillips, 'La Bamba' (1987)
Meanwhile, brother Bob returns to the family from prison and talks his mother into moving to Southern California. It’s no surprise to us, however, that they find life is just as rough in the land of plenty.
For Ritchie, however, life revolves around rock and roll. This is the Fifties, after all, that period of time when rock music was evolving and coming into its own. And Ritchie was writing his own songs and carrying his guitar with him everywhere he went.
The film follows his rapid rise in the music industry but the central focus is on the relationship between Ritchie and his brother, who is an alcoholic prone to abusing his common-law wife while running drugs up from Mexico.
The movie offers no particular explanations for how Ritchie managed to stay so pure while his brother was so nasty but it does show in subtle ways the important influence his mother had on the family, and how focused and mature Ritchie was for his age.
Valdez’s writing is crisp and his direction forthright, and though there is built-in sentiment here he manages to keep the tale from getting sloppy. And his cast is terrific.
Lou Diamond Phillips, Danielle von Zerneck, 'La Bamba' (1987)
Films that hone in on “good vs. evil” always run the risk of having “evil” look so much better, just because the role is inherently more flamboyant (look at “The Untouchables,” for example — bland Eliot Ness doesn’t have a chance against flamboyant Capone in the eyes of moviegoers). And occasionallyEsai Morales, as Bob, does dominate the film by sheer force of acting power.
But Lou Diamond Phillips, as Ritchie, has a strong screen presence and manages to hold his own most of the way. Both are charismatic actors and both handle their roles superbly, though my guess is Oscar-voters will remember Morales’ performance longer than Phillips’.
Despite the necessarily tragic ending to this story, “La Bamba” is surprisingly upbeat, and somehow we have the feeling, right or wrong, that after the film’s story is over Bob will somehow straighten himself out.
“La Bamba” is rated PG-13, and despite its violence, sex, brief partial nudity, profanity and drugs, it’s a fairly soft PG-13 most of the way. These elements never seem exploitive, but always inherent to the story. And how many movies can you say that about these days?